Monday, June 10, 2013

Will the F-35 Be Obsolete Before It Reaches Canadian Hangars?

Here's a question no one has yet asked.   What is the F-35's anti-stealth capability?

Way back when America's stealth fighter, the F-22, and its poor cousin, America's stealth light bomber, the F-35, were conceived it was envisioned they would be operating against non-stealthy aerial opponents.   One side had stealth, the other side didn't - advantage stealth.

But, as the stealth programmes became bogged down in endless delays and cost overruns (as is to be expected with any radically new technology), the world once in the F-35s designers' vision has changed.

What's changed?   Plenty.   First of all, the Americans allowed a lot of Lockheed's stealth technology to fall into the bad guy's hands when the Iranians were somehow able to force land an RQ-170 stealth drone in November, 2011.  It didn't take the Chinese long to show up in Tehran to collect samples of materials, onboard stealth electronics and design features.

Then it dawned on the Russians that, while America's stealth technology was indeed pretty good at defeating the standard, X-band radar sets used on fighter aircraft, it was far less effective against the old, long array, L-band radar technology.  And then it dawned on the Russians that they could fit those long L-band radar arrays in their fighters' wings.   Oopsie.

And then it was the Chinese again hacking into Lockheed's and other defence contractors' computers and helping themselves to masses of F-35 data and secrets.

And look who else is already flying their own stealth fighters?  Why, Russia and China and the Chinese, like the Americans, even have two stealth designs flying (one of which happens to look an awful lot like the F-35 only with the added advantage of twin engines).    Plenty of other countries are also getting in on the stealth act - France, Britain, South Korea, Turkey - and who knows which nation will be next?

America's stealth warplanes are offensive weapons.   The F-35 in particular is designed to penetrate heavily defended hostile territory, make a beeline to some high value target (hopefully undetected), bomb that target and then get out again just as quickly as possible.

The F-35 is not designed to loiter around for an aerial brawl.  It has limited fuel and limited weaponry, just enough for the bombing job and that's about it.  Worse still, the F-35's stealth is "straight line" stealth, frontal aspect only.  It's quite detectable, even to X-band radar, from the sides or the back which, coupled with its single-engine vulnerability and other shortcomings, means it's not very good for the turn'n burn, Top Gun stuff.  It also lacks the Holy Grail of 21st century super-fighters, Supercruise, which leaves it really vulnerable when it has to try to outrun pursuers.

The Joint Strike Fighter is already a bit long in the tooth.  The development contract was signed in 1996.   Lockheed got the nod in 2001.   Now, in mid-2013, the F-35 is still in development and is not expected to be fully-operational until 2019.

The F-35 already has a weight problem.   This is something that happens to many warplanes over the course of their service life as new gadgets come along that have to be added.   With any luck the aircraft becomes more capable even as its performance slides a bit.  Not so with the F-35.   Lockheed has already fought the weight problem by removing fire-suppression equipment, stuff that's really not needed until it really is needed.

Another thing we don't really talk about much is how stealth performs in offensive and defensive roles.   It might be far more helpful to the defender (i.e. a Chinese pilot), operating over home territory, than to someone flying an F-35 to a bombing target in enemy territory (i.e. China).  The defender, after all, has less of a fuel problem and just needs to get in position to fire a missile or two or six and then go refuel and get more weapons.   For the attacker, it's a come-as-you-are party.   He doesn't get to refuel or re-arm.  And, once he has dealt with the defender, he still has to proceed on to his bombing target and then get all the way back out again provided he has enough fuel, weaponry and luck to get out at all.

It all began as such a simple proposition - if he can't see me, he can't hit me and I can do as I like.  It sounded like such a great idea at the time but the calculus has changed over the past dozen years and it will probably keep changing before the F-35 ever sees a Canadian hangar years from now.


Anonymous said...

The only stealth the F35s require is stealth against the Canadian taxpayers. And in that regard, this aircraft is incredibly stealthy.

Not many Canadians understand, or even care, about this purchase. Even though we will be spending billions of dollars on this purchase.

Me, I'm looking for another country.

Boris said...

The thing is it is both the H-gov't and the senior air staff that are tripping over themselves to get this thing, inspite of all of the things wrong with it. Would be nice to find air force leaders who started their thinking with the assumption the enemy would be at or a generation ahead in tech and their own ops would be flown from austere facilities at least marginally exposed to attack, not safe and sunny airstrips in Italy. You know, like every other air war prior Kosovo. Even the Iraqis could hit back the first go around there - ask the RAF.

rumleyfips said...

What enemy. Wars are now fought against unarmed civilian populations. Stealth is not needed when bombing small family homes, hospitals and schools; none of which shoot back.

The Mound of Sound said...

I agree, Boris. There is a stampede to get this thing and it eclipses all of this aircraft's weaknesses and all of the questions that simply go unasked. I'd love to know what we have for a back-up plan if we find the 35's stealth effectively neutralized? There is some speculation that China and Russia are delighted that their potential adversaries are saddling themselves with these warplanes.

@ Rumley - the first generation of stealth fighters are being built in contemplation of "peer on peer" conflict, a real shooting war, likely in east and southeast Asia. Google "Operation Chimichanga" and you'll see what I mean.

Purple library guy said...

When it comes to the F-35 and why it continues to be sold and bought, I am irresistibly reminded of Robocop. Shortly after this unforgettable scene, where the police robot malfunctions and shreds an executive,
the guy pushing it rants to his rival,
"I had a guaranteed military sale with ED209! Renovation program! Spare parts for 25 years! Who cares if it worked or not!"

Anonymous said...

The reason the F-35 was brought into being was the correct view that Russia would expand the export of S-300/400 systems, along with associated support SAM systems that form low to high altitude coverage against 4th generation aircraft.

The F-35 was designed in large to fight against such systems with a combination of stealth and electronic warfare, such as active jamming.

I hate to break it to everyone here but 5th generation fighters are very expensive and difficult to develop. If the writer would like a higher level of protection against the newest offerings from the Russian and Chinese (that will no doubt experience their own development hell) then the only option is to pay for a unit of F/A-22s to operate in Canadian airspace.

The Mound of Sound said...

Ah yes, Anon. It is good that you acknowledge the F-35 to be a light attack bomber intended to operate in heavily-defended, hostile airspace where systems such as the S-300/400 SAMS are deployed.

The question becomes, however, whether the light attack bomber is a suitable role for the only warplane to be operated by the RCAF?

You are quite mistaken in suggesting that the F-22 exists as an "option" for Canada or any other allied air force. It would certainly be preferable to the relatively limited F-35 but the Americans foreclosed any possibility of acquiring that a good long time ago.

And you're not breaking it to anyone that radical new technologies are very expensive and difficult to develop. Odd that you seem to think otherwise.

Yet when you're developing these difficult and hyper-expensive technologies and yet safeguard the data and design information so poorly that the intended adversary can filch much of it, this makes you wonder what is the point?

As for "protection" against the newest offering from the Russians and Chinese on what basis do you contend those to present an offensive threat to Canada? If they were to attack us it would not be with Pak-50s, J-20s or J-30s.

Anonymous said...

It is not the Harper is the Canadian Government.

Anonymous said...

On some tech site, I stumbled across a design for fanatics that are interested in astronomy, meteors, space satellites and other stuff.

It pointed to a site where a common ordinary person could buy small sensors for about $25 apiece to detect small meteors and space junk floating around the earth. Just for fun. Plant a small array and watch the sky junk.

I think that a rather large array would have no problem seeing the silhouette of the flying junk called "stealth."

The Mound of Sound said...

@ Anon 9:05. Really? They've been calling themselves the "Harper Government" for years.

Besides some of us have become familiar over the decades with what a "Canadian government" looks and acts like and this bunch doesn't resemble any Canadian government. The way it has gagged the public service, the way it has gagged the armed forces, the way it most recently gagged the RCMP while turning it into the Royal Conservative Mounted Police, and transforming them all into partisan political agencies, this is not a "Canadian government."

Purple library guy said...

Well, when it comes to protection against the Russians or the Chinese (because they're going to be coming over the North Pole any day now and we could totally spend enough on our air force to take them in an air war), surely an F-35 would be less relevant than an air superiority fighter with those L-band radar thingies. I'm not clear on whether putting stealth in would be worth it or whether we'd be better off with like three times as many non-stealthy ones.

Alternatively, if the real plan is *not* to start world war III but instead to bomb, and maybe support a bit of infantry in, third world countries like we always do, some A-10s would be way cheaper and carry more ordnance and be able to fly more sorties and be immeasurably better at the ground support part.

The Mound of Sound said...

@ Anon 9:40. Standard radar, X or L-band, is just one method of detecting aircraft. The Australians seem to be having good success at a new form of radar that tracks the air turbulence of an aircraft. There are also infrared and sound tracking. Dual-seeker missiles that use radar and infrared are an obvious threat, particularly to the F-35 with its massive side and rear aspect heat signature.

That's a key problem with our approach to stealth - we place way too many of our eggs in that one basket which leaves us enormously vulnerable to counter-measures.

And the F-35 gives up a great deal for its dubious stealth advantage. It sacrifices range, payload and, above all else, supercruise. If (when) the stealth cloaking is negated, you're left with a very compromised warplane.

I have often found it curious that, because of this obvious fragility, no one is asking for some sort of stealth lifetime warranty from the manufacturer and none is being offered. You would have thought that when you're buying into this risk, Lockheed should have warranted its stealth to remain functional for at least 20-years. They haven't and they won't. Wonder why?

Steve said...

Hiding the tribute from the Canadian taxpayer is the only stealth function that matters.

rumleyfips said...

Wouldn't it be a lot cheaper to just buy a cheap fridge from Future Shop, sell it on Kijiji and give the box to Potato Pete. He could sit in it and go " Vroom, Vroom" amd save us all millions>